Artist Dossier: Gerard Sekoto
Celebrated for his deeply emotive depiction of humanity and everyday scenes, Gerard Sekoto (1913-1993) is widely recognised as the pioneer of Black South African art and social realism in South Africa. Sekoto’s attraction to the contemporary lifestyle in the big cities prompted his move to Sophiatown, Johannesburg in 1939. Here his reputation began to grow in Johannesburg following a group exhibition at the Gainsborough Gallery in 1939. The same year also marked the artist’s inclusion in the annual exhibition of the South African Art Academy. He participated in these exhibitions every year until he left for Paris. His works at this time were in poster paints on brown paper and executed on the floor. He soon met the painter Judith Gluckman at the Gainsborough Galleries in 1940, and she introduced him to the rudiments of oil painting. While living in Sophiatown Sekoto’s paintings mainly depicted the lifestyle and scenery of the township, often commenting on the social conditions and underlying mood of the community. In 1940, the Johannesburg Art Gallery bought Sekoto’s Yellow Houses – the first painting by a Black artist to be acquired by the municipal gallery.
Gerard Sekoto eventually relocated to Paris in 1947, where he initially met with some difficulties and was forced to find work playing the piano in bars and nightclubs. Although he achieved critical acclaim early on in Paris, from two solo exhibitions and a variety of group shows held at prestigious galleries, he struggled to sell many of his works. In spite of this, Sekoto’s reputation grew steadily and he soon began exhibiting fairly extensively both in Paris and further afield in Stockholm, Vichy, Venice, Nemours, Senegal, Denmark and around the United States. In South Africa, he was not forgotten, and his work was exhibited in Pretoria, Johannesburg and Cape Town.
Sekoto debuted on the secondary market in Sotheby’s and Stephan Welz 1992 auction, where his work Amused, oil on canvas board, 30 x 40 cm, a painting in oils of three women kneeling in conversation fetched a moderate price of $3,515 against its estimate of $3,330 – $4,440. Since then, Sekoto has gone on to feature in many local and international auctions, recording modest to high figures. His prices at auction reached an all-time high in Bonhams 2011 Masterpieces– the South African Sale auction where his painting Yellow Houses, District Six, oil on canvas, 50.5 x 58cm first acquired by The Johannesburg Art Gallery fetched $849,992, an impressive amount among his contemporaries.
His most recent appearance was on February 16, 2019, when his painting Senegalese Figures, oil on board, 33.79 x 26cm fetched a price of $11,217 against an estimate of $7,960 – $10,131 at Russell Kaplan Auctioneers, Art and Antiques auction in Johannesburg. In November 2018, his work Women and Baby in the Street, oil on canvas/board, 35.5 x 25cm sold for $55,419 at the Strauss and Co.’s Important South African and International Art auction also in Johannesburg. On the international scene, Sekoto is a recurring figure in Bonhams’ The South African Sale auction where his work Three School Girls, oil on board, 40.5 x 50.5cm fetched $402,491 (buyer’s premium inclusive) from a low estimate of $156,433 while his painting Portrait of a Man (Lentswana), oil on canvas/board, 45.5 x 40cm realised $496,350 (buyer’s premium inclusive) against an estimate of $130,361 – $195,541 in September 12, 2018.
Sekoto was recognised for his ability to capture the humanity and realism of everyday scenes, giving dignity to Black South Africans, without the distance that separated celebrated European artists at the time, from their subjects.
In the preface to a catalogue for an exhibition organised by the Johannesburg Art Gallery in 1989 titled Gerard Sekoto: Unsevered Ties, Lesley Spiro writes: “Gerard Sekoto is undoubtedly one of the pioneers of modern South African art. However, partly because of his long exile and partly because of the Eurocentric orientations in South African art history, he has not received the recognition in this country that he deserves.”
Up until 1988, the artist’s legacy had largely been neglected. Towards the end of his life, Sekoto’s work gained recognition both in South Africa and abroad largely through the efforts of Barbara Lindop who produced three books encouraging the promotion of his work. She has continued her work after his death together with the trustees of the Gerard Sekoto Foundation, which was established in accordance with his will to develop awareness and understanding of his legacy.
Biography: Gerard Sekoto retrieved on March 14, 2019, from https://www.stephenfriedman.com/
Art Price: Auction results for artworks by Gerard Sekoto, retrieved on March 12, 2019, from https://www.artprice.com
Incorrigible Corrigall: Packaging a life: Gerard Sekoto, retrieved on March 11, 2019, from
adeoluwa oluwajoba is an artist, critic and art writer. He holds a B.A in Fine and Applied Arts from the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, and is currently the Programme Officer at The Ben Enwonwu Foundation.
August 23, 2019